Firefighters: Where now for the dispute?

Submitted by AWL on 22 December, 2002 - 7:15

Solidarity is key
Jill Mountford asked three firefighters what they think of the ACAS talks and what they think should be the next step for the dispute
Billy Carruthers, Euston FBU

The union's been busy putting out press releases and strike bulletins within the organisation thanking members for all their consistent support and for going on the march last Saturday.

We want to keep the organisation together. Strikes in the future have not been ruled out, far from it!

If the ACAS talks prove to be a waste of time, and I think they will, then we have to be ready to take action at the end of January.

I've got little faith in the TUC leadership. We need solidarity support from them, we need them to organise action and not just talk about it in a weak willed way.

We've had much support from rank and file trade unionists in other trade unions. They have given us money, collected in workplaces, and they've come on our picket lines. There are thousands and thousands of workers who are fed up with this Blair Government. Who feel let down and want something more.

We've got to start pulling together, linking up the different disputes so we can support each other and build up our strength and confidence.

Take the workers in education: there are many different unions involved, most have got some dispute over pay and conditions rumbling on, yet they never all strike together. If they did we'd have a lot more strength.

Many at my station were disappointed when the last action was called off. But everything's got to be seen in context.

The miners' strike in 1984 defined almost everything that happened afterwards. We now have to build up our confidence, support each other and fight back together.

We have a slogan in our union for this dispute - "out together, fight together and back together".
Keep up the campaign!

Mick Headon, FBU Yorkshire and Humberside

Once more the FBU has shown just how reasonable we are. We want to carry on negotiating because we think some progress is being made with ACAS.

There's a meeting with the employers on 6 January and if there's something like a serious offer on the table then there'll be a recall conference of the FBU with 300-350 delegates with a mandate from their brigades that will decide. But that's in the future.

What we have to do now is keep the campaign going, keep the membership briefed and informed and prepared for full steam ahead if, at the end of the day, the employers and the government link any decent payrise to a decimation of the service and scrapping conditions of work.

If that happens we will be back out on strike - I'm completely convinced of that.
ACAS will agree with us

Les Reid, FBU London

I think it's a good move to cancel the strikes before Christmas. Andy (Gilchrist, FBU leader) has always said the FBU is prepared to negotiate. We've shown this time and again. We're not prepared to settle for just anything. We've showed the employers and the Government that already. We believe we deserve a significant pay rise, and the employers recognise this, but they don't have the money, so the Government need to make some available.

I think it was a good move going to ACAS because our case it so strong.

I believe they'll find in our favour and then the employers and the Government have got to decide what they're going to do. We're reasonable people and we want to find a settlement.

The Government can't on the one hand tell other workers to use ACAS to sort out their disputes and then ignore what they say when they don't like what ACAS come up with.

This could be a slogan for the whole trade union movement.

Firefighters need more than token solidarity
By Jean Lane

One hundred and fifty people attended a rally in support of the firefighters on 11 December in East London. Andy Gilchrist was billed to speak, but in the event could not attend.

The FBU Executive meeting which decided to cancel the latest round of strikes had only just finished. Nick Wrack spoke for the firefighters.

In his view, ACAS could not deliver anything. The Government had already stated there would be no new money for their pay claim. The membership should be prepared to get the picket huts out again in January.

Wrack spoke angrily about the treatment the firefighters were getting in the media. "When we are out there saving lives everyone tells us how heroic and marvellous we are. But as soon as we ask for more pay, overnight we are turned into monsters and thugs. We are sick of being patted on the head. We want a living wage."

This got a very good response from the many firefighters in the room.

The other speakers, included Bernard Regan for the NUT, and Yunis Gratch from Unison NEC. They spoke about the importance of the firefighters' struggle from their own point of view as representatives of low paid public sector workers, and about how those workers support the firefighters despite government attempts to divide them.

Benn reminded the meeting of the lessons of the miners strike; the importance of class struggle as an education for workers in how the world works, the use of the media to batter the workers down and, most importantly, of the need for solidarity amongst workers in struggle.

All this was heart-warming. What then ensued after the top table speeches was less than uplifting for any thinking, class-conscious worker who might have been there, as opposed to the knee-jerk, "everything is brilliant", SWP members.

The chairwoman asked if a firefighter would like to ask the first question. After a short silence a man raised his hand and said "Yes. Why has the strike been called off?" Nick Wrack said he would like to answer the questions at the end.
"Did any other firefighters want to ask a question?" Silence. Why? Because the question they had wanted an answer to had just been asked. That was interpreted as "shyness" by the chair!

She then proceeded to carve up the interventions from the floor until all the public sector unions had been represented by a member, or a fellow-traveller, of the SWP.

All the interventions were well-meaning expressions of solidarity. Expressions of solidarity are essential of course. Keeping up the support from other workers even when the FBU has called off the latest strike is important in order to put the pressure on the government and on the FBU executive. But this meeting had about it an air of mass denial.

The FBU members needed to discuss how to put pressure on their leadership to stop cracking in face of the government onslaught. How to put pressure on the TUC to secure backing for the FBU the next time they go out. How to get other unions to bring forward their own unions pay and anti-privatisation disputes to coincide with the date of the next FBU strike.

The meeting was a wasted opportunity.


Submitted by Janine on Wed, 01/01/2003 - 20:23

On the issue of the ACAS talks, I think that it is more likely that Billy will be proved to be right than Mick or Les.

We'd all like to think that the firefighters' case is so strong that our side will 'win' at ACAS. But in reality, ACAS will probably give as much as it thinks it has to, as little as it can get away with.

The problem is that ACAS - whilst looking 'independent' - takes as given the relationship between employers and workers. So it takes as good coin arguments from the employer that it 'can not afford' to pay its workers a decent wage. It will probably accept the 'market forces' argument that since 35 people apply for each firefighters' job, there is no need to increase pay.

And some of the 'modernisation' proposals that *we* know will worsen conditions, and are dangerous and/or anti-union, will seem 'reasonable' to ACAS - which likes to come up with a 'compromise' proposal.

I'm not saying that unions should not talk with ACAS. But I don't think we can rely on it, and I think we should plan to be disappointed.

I wrote that ACAS "will probably give as much as it thinks it has to, as little as it can get away with". So the best way to force a result is to keep on the pressure.

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